Heyward to play bigger part for Steelers’ defense

June 1, 2014
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Associated Press
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward will look to play a key role for the Steelers’ defense this season.
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Associated Press
Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell watches as defensive tackle Al Lapuaho hits a blocking sled last week.

PITTSBURGH – Forget the Extreme Home Makeover, the Steelers are undertaking an Extreme Position Makeover on their defensive line.

It wasn’t all that long ago – the 2012 season – that Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon were just key reserves on the Steelers’ defensive line.

With Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood entrenched as starters, Heyward and Hood were fortunate to see 20 snaps per game.

But Hampton was not re-signed following that season, handing the reigns at nose tackle to McLendon, while Heyward unseated Hood at defensive end three games into 2013.

Now, with Hood having signed as a free agent with Jacksonville and the 35-year-old Keisel still unsigned, Heyward and McLendon aren’t just starters for the Steelers, they’re being counted on to provide leadership in what is now the team’s most inexperienced position.

As the Steelers prepare to begin their second of three weeks of Organized Team Activities, Heyward and McLendon are trying to get their bearings on what the defensive line will look like this season.

“I can’t tell yet,” said Heyward. “I’m still learning the guys, and guys are trying to pick up stuff. We’ll see once (training) camp comes.”

The Steelers are not only without Keisel and Hood, but key backup Al Woods as well. Woods signed as a free agent with Tennessee. Add in the retirements of longtime stalwarts Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke following the 2011 season and you get the idea that it wouldn’t be surprising to see defensive line coach John Mitchell holding a placard with pictures on it to keep all of the new faces straight.

“I had some guys that were here for a long, long time; guys who played for 10 or 12 years and then you lose them and have to start over,” Mitchell said. “A lot of those guys that I had, we grew up together. With the transition now, you’re getting some young guys and you’re getting some guys who do not have a lot of playing time under their belt and it’s going to take a little while to develop them.”

The key new guys would be veteran Cam Thomas, who was signed in free agency from San Diego, and draft picks Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers.

A lot of hope is being placed on Tuitt, whom the Steelers selected in the second round of the draft. Many had the former Notre Dame star rated as a possible first-round pick, but he was unable to work out much leading up to the draft due to a foot injury and the Steelers feel fortunate he was available for them in the second round.

But Heyward, a first-round pick in 2011, knows that learning to play well at the NFL level can take time. He went from a reserve who had just 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2012 to a player who was dominant in 2013, recording 59 tackles and five sacks to go along with 31 quarterback pressures.

“Everybody has a chance. It’s about seizing that,” Heyward said. “We’ll see how (Tuitt) develops and how he grows. I know he’s going to be a great player one day. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. It could be this year, next year, whenever. Everybody grows different. You’ve just got to learn. That’s the thing about the NFL, you’re constantly learning. Hopefully, he can take in all of that information.”

Heyward and McLendon will play a big role in that process.

“That’s what we do here,” said McLendon. “You help the young guys out. It’s something that the guys here before did and it’s something we’ll be counted on to do as well, help make the team better.”

Coming off a season in which the Steelers allowed an uncharacterstic 115 yards rushing per game and fell out of the top 10 in total defense, improvement will be needed if the team is to make the playoffs after missing the postseason in back-to-back years.

“We struggled last year. We were 13th,” said Heyward. “In the last 10 years, we’ve had four or five No. 1 defenses. We’ve got to get back to that.

“Our bar is set a lot higher than other places. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Odds and end zones

The Steelers’ practices this week will be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. … The Steelers officially cleared $5.6 million of salary cap space on Sunday for the release of linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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